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When Extremist Voices Claim the Narrative

William Hordern has been a wholesomely balanced voice in the theological conversation for over half a century.
In his 1955 book, “A Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology,” Hordern surveyed the development of Protestant theology and described the way conservative theology had been identified with the anti-intellectual and anti-scientific ranting of extreme fundamentalists.

At one point Hordern wisely observed, “No system of thought can be judged by what fanatics do in its name.”

The value of his insight is evident in the way that we resist any tendency to think of the Christian faith in terms of the behavior of the KKK, or the Muslim faith in terms of the acts of Islamic terrorists.

When extremists of any perspective act out their overextended passion in destructive ways, we apply Hordern’s wisdom when we are quick to remember that this “is not really what this faith/perspective/philosophy is about.”

Yet, in times of stress and challenge, where conflicting perspectives come to bear on issues of importance, it is often the voices of extreme passion that capture the greater attention.

Why is it that the rhetoric of extremism can be so effective in defining the narrative that passes for what “Christians believe” or what “the will of the American people” is?

Part of the reason may be the short-term memory of an audience that sees what is on the table but doesn’t remember the process by which it got there.

A one-dimensional understanding of an issue can easily be shaped to look like what the presenter wants people to see.

In the same way that a clever salesperson can manipulate the naive understanding of a customer to take the shape of a “need” for the product, an issue can be framed so as to be easily embraced by an audience as their own thinking.

Fear and anxiety, caused by uncertain times and volatile issues, may be another key factor.

If I can be made to feel that my security, way of life or place of privilege is being threatened by a given proposal, I will more likely endorse a promise of protection from the one presenting himself as a champion of my concern.

An effective tool in this process is a communication system that offers repeated reinforcement for whatever way of thinking is being pushed by the extremist.

The old saying, “Repeat something often enough, true or not, and it will eventually become truth,” finds ample verification in our short cable news cycle and widespread social media.

There doesn’t seem to be much patience for careful, balanced reflection and discernment in a partisan world.

When an effort is made to find out “what is the real story here,” the response is more likely to be a contest of dueling rhetoric than an analysis of fact and rational connection.

There is a perspective that responds to the challenge of negotiating the well-being of family, church, community or nation that says, in effect, “This is what I want, and I don’t really care what consequences it has for others.”

We associate that perspective with immaturity and devote a lot of attention to helping people grow beyond that.

Unfortunately, there are times when this growth does not occur on schedule and finds itself aligned with power, leading to the kinds of extremism that cripple and even terrorize the human quest for community and the common good.

A little over a year ago, I reflected on the Jonestown tragedy over three decades ago. In that column, I wondered about our tendency to “drink the Kool-Aid” of narratives that define our realities in detrimental ways.

We still have a choice of what narrative we will embrace to give expression to who we are, individually and collectively.

We surrender that choice at the peril of giving sanction to whoever has access to the most money to buy microphone time.

Can we be too careful about who we let tell us who we are?

I wonder if an appropriate paraphrase of Hordern’s wise counsel over a half century ago might be: “No narrative should be embraced that is served up by any form of extremism.”

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.